Slow boat to Russia

June 27, 2003

Somebody leads me down to my cabin in the depths of the ship, where two young Japanese men are already getting settled in. One of them, Takeshi, is deep in the study of the documents sent to him by his travel agent. A look of relief comes over his face as I speak to him in Japanese. The other, a cheery little fellow with a shaved head and spindly arms, is determined to speak to me in his poor English. We chat for a while, but I figure that I’ll be spending plenty of time in this cabin with them, and head up into the daylight. As I make my way upstairs, two young couples are coming down. I smile and nod.

“Malcolm?” one of them asks, in an Australian accent. I do a double take, wondering if we know each other from somewhere, but I can’t place the faces. Obviously amused by the puzzled look on my face, the girl who’d asked explains that they’d seen the passenger list, which contained only one Anglo name other than their own. They’re Kate and Steve, Caz and Geoff, they’re from Perth, and they’re on their way to working holidays in Ireland. We chat briefly, and move on.

Enormous slabs of man sit at the bar, t-shirts tucked into shorts, socks pushing through sandals. They’re getting stuck into the booze already. The boat is full of them, large men in small vests, swaying from side to side as they walk like oil tankers in rough seas. They’re everywhere, lumbering through the lounges, hefting car tyres around or adding to the large collection of cardboard boxes in the hallway. Their arms are the size of hams, and I feel the need to be very polite.They’ve got a look in their eyes that I haven’t seen for a long time, a hungry, unsettling look, as if they’re constantly scanning for opportunities, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice. Perhaps it’s just the contrast with Japan, but they’re all huge, factory-built hulks who look as if they could tear my arms off using only their little fingers. Do they have small men in Russia? Perhaps they get crushed up and used for animal feed.

Is it just the air conditioning, or is it colder aboard the ship than on shore? It’s as if we’re officially in Russia now. I certainly feel as if I’ve left Japan. Apart from two Japanese immigration officials with a computer and a list of names, all the staff are dressed casually, and the only thing that indicates their official status is the bored, dismissive look on their faces. I go up on deck and look around. Something isn’t right. There are cars up there. Stepping gingerly past the straps that are holding the cars down, I explore further. Every last bit of space is taken up by cars. The helicopter pad, the games deck, all filled with luxury used cars. The small area under the lifeboats on the port side has a row of scooters parked there. There are even three Land Cruisers in the swimming pool. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to be told that the lifeboats themselves were filled with vehicles of some sort.

In the lounge, a video of a Danny DeVito stand-up show is playing. For a moment I wonder if I’m bored enough to watch it, but as I pass closer to the screen, I notice that the voice I can hear is Russian. It seems that the show has been blessed by the services of a simultaneous interpreter. If you listen carefully, you can make out the original sound underneath the Russian commentary. Quite why you’d want to listen carefully to hear Danny DeVito is another question. I can’t face it, and trudge downstairs and through the smelly corridor to the cabin. Looking upwards through the grimy porthole, I can see the dock, where more enormous Russians are strapping cars to a crane. They look as if they hardly need the crane. They could probably hurl them up on deck single-handed, or climb up with one strapped to their backs. They looked like they wrestled bears. Whether professionally, or as a hobby, I couldn’t tell. To one side on the dock was a hillock of metal cubes, the remains of what had once been cars. Presumably any vehicles not deemed to be saleable were crushed up by the big men.

I’d been on the boat for nearly four hours now, and there was still no sign of any progress towards leaving harbour. Occasionally an announcement in Russian would come from the speakers, but the gangway was still in place, and people were strolling around on the dock leisurely. There was a leisurely air to it all, a sense that we would leave when the boat was ready, and not before. Or perhaps when a particular big man was ready. The Aussies and I went up on deck and took our last look at Japan. If only it had been somewhere more picturesque. A couple more cars were brought on board. Families said fond farewells on the dockside. I wanted someone there to say fond farewells to me. We waited some more. Eventually, a truck turned up, depositing two cars outside the small hut that seemed to be the headquarters of the Port Authority. They received a cursory torchlit glance from somebody, and were driven on board. It seemed like an easy way to do a bit of smuggling. Still, who would ever smuggle anything out of Japan?

Things took an even odder turn with the evening’s cabaret. Having found the Aussies, and got the beers in, we sat down to watch the band, a tolerable four-piece with a singer with what may have been a wig. He had a fairly good voice, although at times he veered dangerously close to the club style of Vic Reeves, with heartfelt versions of My Way and Strangers in the Night. Through the doors, out by the stairway, we could see some brightly coloured costumes. The girls I’d noticed on deck earlier, who I’d assumed were hostesses on the way home to see their families, were apparently dancers. As the evening progressed, we were treated to a series of Russian versions of the world’s dances, complete with costume changes. The girls gamely did their thing, from flamenco to belly dancing to some kind of Chinese dance involving fans, all introduced by an enormous woman in a black item, some kind of lacy thing that was presumably intended to be sexy. Her hair was big, to match the rest of her, and the overall effect was reminiscent of Elvira, Queen of Darkness, only scarier and more Russian. It seemed inevitable that whatever the climax of the evening was, she would be providing it. Along the front, a row of car crushers lapped it all up. And after work, they all clock off and go upstairs to the disco, where everyone is giving it all they’ve got, dancing like crazy to what sounds strangely like a 90s remix of Boney M.

In the afternoon, I wander around, hoping that there’s something on the boat that I’ve missed. There isn’t. In the Casino Verandah, a few men are watching the Russian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The host seems incredibly young, some fresh face from Moscow in a bright suit. It seems a million miles away from here, this nicotine-stained forgotten world. On the walls are posters advertising apparently random holiday locations: Ayers Rock, Seoul, Hong Kong, Egypt, Jakarta, and Aotearoa. In the Music Saloon, men sit around a table with businesslike papers spread out in front of them, looking serious. Probably deciding what to do with all the cars. I join the Aussies on deck, and we play a game of cards. The boat is exactly how I’d expected it to be, and yet unlike anything I could have imagined. I only left Tokyo a week ago, and already it’s hard to know where I am. At the bar I paid in yen and received US dollars in change. When Kate gets a round in, she pays in US dollars and gets her change in roubles. When we try to figure out how much things cost, they talk about Aussie dollars, and I don’t have a clue what anything costs in real money. I don’t even know what real money is.

I go up on deck to watch the sunset. In a section I hadn’t previously noticed, the female half of the cutely dorky looking Japanese couple is standing on her own, a terribly sad expression on her face contrasting with the cheerful orange of her raincoat. I wonder if she’s thinking about what she’s let herself in for, going along with her trainspotter husband on his Trans-Siberian trip. I wonder if she’s thinking about her life. They seemed so happy yesterday as they waited for the boat to leave, taking pictures of each other The sunset is beautiful, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Now, with a lattice of clouds hanging a little way above the sea, I get the feeling that this is going to be a good one. I know I’m going to take far too many pictures, none of which will do justice to the reality.

I’d woken at 3, and wondered if it had been through choice. I wanted to watch the sun come up, but it was much too early. Tinny music was coming from somewhere in the cabin. At first, I cursed Takeshi, thinking it was his alarm clock. I got out of bed and searched for the radio, but I realised it was coming from the speaker in the ceiling. Were the crew providing us with some kind of lullaby? I thought about going back to bed, but decided that, seeing as I was awake, I should try to stay up long enough to see the sun come up. Besides, I was already awake enough that getting back to sleep would be a major mission. I put on some clothes and went upstairs. Hearing sounds coming from the bars, I sat in the empty Verandah Casino Lounge. I couldn’t face the thought of beer at this time in the morning, and I certainly couldn’t face the thought of a repetition of last night’s entertainment. Besides, I only had $100 and ¥10,000 notes, and I didn’t want to get myself into the morass of cross-currency change. I sat reading for a while, occasionally disturbed by the footsteps one of the bear wrestlers padding past on their way somewhere. I’d glance up briefly, hoping I didn’t look as if I’d been disturbed. One of them said something to me as he passed. I looked up blankly. “Russki?” I shook my head. “Angleeski.” He came over shakily and lowered his considerable bulk into the chair opposite me. He introduced himself as Aleksandr and offered his enormous hand. I placed mine within it and hoped for the best.

It wasn’t just the hand that was big. His shoulders curved like a bridge turned inside out, filling his oversize t-shirt. The World Bodybuilding Gym logo on it traversed his chest, down towards a garish pair of shorts that housed his piston thighs. Beneath the slight shadow of a mohawk, a fading black eye set off the metalwork surrounding his teeth. He spoke hesitantly, in broken English, as if each word took a great effort. He asked me question after question, and all I could do was answer and hope not to cause offence. He terrified me. As I gradually realised that he was just a human, and a slightly drunk one at that, the idea of having a conversation no longer seemed so outlandish. Thankfully, the conversation moved on to sport. He was a keen boxer, so I mentioned Klitschko, who had just beaten an aging Lennox Lewis. Aleksandr didn’t approve. “He not good. Too slow.” “Who is … favourite footballist?” He liked David Beckham, Man United and Spartak Moscow. I asked if there was a team in Vladivostok, and he laughed.

We talked more about sport, the international language of communication between men who don’t know what else to say. He enjoyed skiing and snowboarding, sometimes going to Hokkaido. Also, he announced proudly, “I have master sport swimming.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but nodded approvingly. He told me about being on the same team as someone called Popov. When I didn’t immediately recognise the name, he apologised for his “diction problem”, pointing to a mouth full of metal. I asked what he’d been doing in Japan. “3 days. Tokyo, Osaka. Disneyland. Shopping. Japan woman.” he said with a stainless grin and a wheezy chuckle. I shuddered to think of the woman who would find him attractive without payment. When he told me that he had two children, I felt relieved, as if that were evidence for my theory that he wouldn’t grind me up into a fine dust. We chatted for a while, within the limits of his English and sobriety, and he gave me a quick Russian lesson. Shortly after 4, he stood up, gave my hand another mighty squeeze, and headed for his cabin. I stayed where I was, and waited for the sun.